Ed Miliband could call a snap election following 2015 if he wins. Photo: Getty
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Why Ed Miliband should gamble on a snap election after 2015

After 2015, Ed Miliband should evoke the spirit of Harold Wilson and gamble on a snap election – not dither and drown like Gordon Brown.

Next year’s election has been touted as the most significant for a generation. But then they always are.

But after a five-year wait for this general election, we may be asked to go to the polls again even sooner than we think. For while there is legislation saying the next government will last five years, like the current administration, the realities of politics – and a quick bit of opportunism – may see an election called within two years of the 2015 vote. Consider this scenario: Ed Miliband wakes up on 8 May next year and discovers he is prime minister. Not an unlikely event considering the polls. Labour has been sitting ahead of the Tories since early 2012, granted with the odd blip here and there. But the party has been in the lead for the past two and a half years. Current predictions, thanks to the electoral system and constituency boundaries, give Labour a majority of just more than 30.

But with the economy expected to pick up, and the Kinnock Factor of Miliband, it would be surprising if the Tories did not cut into the lead in the polls in the run-up to election day. There is precedence here: In 1964, Harold Wilson went into the election with polls giving him a majority of anywhere from 12 to 28. He formed a government with a majority of just five. Likewise in 1992, the country went to the polls with Neil Kinnock’s Labour party on course to get a slim majority, but instead John Major won more votes than any other prime minister in British history. The Tories know how to cast doubts on untested Labour leaders.

So Miliband wakes up the day after the election with a smaller than expected majority, but still large enough so that he can form a government. But what can he do? Splashing the cash is out – a Labour victory does not mean the country is suddenly back in the black and the last thing Ed Balls will want to be accused of is being reckless with a growing economy. It will be the symbolic measures that will dominate Miliband’s first year in office – axing the bedroom tax, halting NHS reorganisations, tinkering with the more unpopular aspects of Michael Gove’s school reforms. But once those headline-grabbing moves are out of the way, Miliband will find himself beholden to the rabble-rousers in the Labour party to keep the government going.

In the same way David Cameron must be grateful he is in a coalition with the Lib Dems and not his rightwing backbenchers, Miliband will not be wanting to rely on support from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner and other members of the "tax and spend" wing of the party to prop up the Government. 

He will want a larger majority – as all prime ministers do – and as soon as possible. A snap election will suddenly appear very intoxicating. Harold Wilson saw his majority increase from four to 96 after calling a general election in 1966, fewer than two years after the previous vote. Wilson used the same trick again in 1974, managing to move his government from a minority to a slim majority by calling an October general election just eight months after the February vote. 

After two years in government, Miliband will have grown into the role of prime minister. The Labour leader has his critics, but it is remarkable what a bit of power can do for someone’s image. Remember how Cameron and George Osborne were perceived before taking office? How about William Hague? – derided as a joke when Leader of the Opposition but now firmly in the statesman category.

The economy should still be growing. Provided Balls doesn’t balls it up, and sticks broadly to the coalition's spending plans – which he has already alluded to – Labour could reap the benefits of Osborne’s tough line.

If Labour is riding high in the polls, and the feeling is Miliband is about to push the general election button, panicked Tories and Lib Dems will no doubt start to very loudly talk up the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. But while that Act provided a much-needed and effective anchor on the Con-Lib coalition during its stormier times, there is no reason to suggest Miliband will use it to weigh down the Labour ship. Legally speaking, no parliament can bind another, so it could just be repealed – very easily. Would the Leader of the Opposition (Osborne? Theresa May? Boris?) stand up in parliament and argue against asking the public to vote on a new government? 

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a complete red herring in all of this. Miliband should go to the polls and increase his majority, like Wilson did in 1966 and 1974. If not, he could end up like Major at the end of his tenure, dragging the government on in the hope something will happen to either destroy the opposition or boost his flagging ratings. Whatever he decides, he must avoid the mistake of the last Labour prime minister, who lost the election-that-never-was in Autumn 2007 simply by not calling one. Brown got the reputation as a ditherer, which haunted him until he left office. As Tony Blair once said, Labour is best when it is boldest. Miliband will do well to emulate the boldness of Wilson, not the dithering of Brown.

Owen Bennett tweets @owenjbennett

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.